Cuban's family lost trying to reach U.S.

The man says his wife and two kids were on a fishing boat when the craft vanished.

Associated Press
Published January 3, 2008

HIALEAH - This was supposed to be the year Luis Bazan celebrated New Year's with his wife and young sons in the U.S.

Bazan left Cuba for Florida nearly two years ago on a hand-wrought wooden boat. On Nov. 24, his family and about 40 others, including a dozen young children, boarded a speedy fishing boat to make the same journey.

Bazan spoke to his wife on a borrowed cell phone shortly after they began the trip across the Florida Straits. That was the last he heard from her.

"My only drop of hope is that the boat landed somewhere in the Bahamas and that they haven't been able to call," Bazan said recently as he sat in his one-room Hialeah apartment, tracing his fingers over photos of his boys, 8-year-old Yasel and 2-year-old Yarlon.

Relatives have reported nearly 70 migrants aboard three boats have died or been lost in the Florida Straits in the last two months alone, according to the Coast Guard.

"In recent months and recent days, we've seen a very alarming loss of life," said Coast Guard spokesman Chris O'Neil.

Days before Christmas, a high-speed boat carrying up to 25 people capsized a few miles off the northern coast of Cuba. The Cuban government said two people died. Family members in the U.S. told the media the casualty numbers were higher.

On Saturday, the Coast Guard suspended a 48-hour search for yet another boat with at least three migrants aboard. U.S. officials link the increase in apparent casualties to an uptick of Cubans leaving the island.

In 2007, U.S. officials stopped about 3,200 Cubans at sea, up from about 2,300 the year before. It was the largest number of interdictions since the 1994 rafter crisis that saw 37,000 Cubans attempt to reach Florida after Castro briefly opened the island's borders.

Bazan wasn't thinking about politics when he left his small village in Mantanzas in 2006. "I came for everything, for freedom and to drag my family out of miserable poverty," he said.

He found an apartment and a job unloading packages at a cargo transport company. In his free time he sent packages home and waited for his family's arrival.

"I would make videotapes every month, playing and telling them stories so that they could see me. I left my little one when he was about 6 months, and he could pick me out of a photo album," Bazan said.

Eventually he secured a spot for his family on a high-speed boat chartered by a recent fellow Cuban immigrant. Bazan and other relatives of those on that boat said they never paid for the trip, which would be a federal crime. The trip wasn't expected to take more than a day in clear weather.

Bazan was so sure his family completed the crossing and was being processed by U.S. immigration authorities that he didn't call the Coast Guard for nearly two weeks, he said.

Once he did call authorities, the Coast Guard searched the route the boat was supposed to take but found nothing. A week later, Bazan chartered a small plane to fly over the route, but also saw no signs of the boat.

Bazan was briefly taken to a psychiatric ward after authorities feared he was suicidal. He says he is ready to face whatever the future may hold.